President Obama’s Oval Office address on Sunday night was intended to restore America’s confidence in his national security leadership. To succeed, the president had to do two things: win American hearts with passionate words, and win American minds with strategic credibility.
Pursuing the first concern, the president had some early success. His reference to the “most precious part” of his life — his two young daughters, Sasha and Malia — offered a personal sense of understanding towards suffering families in San Bernardino. Obama also poignantly encapsulated American sadness in witnessing the Paris attacks: “I know we see our kids in the faces of the young people killed in Paris.” And the president’s affirmation that America “will destroy ISIL and any other organization that tries to harm us” with “strong” and “relentless” action was a welcome departure from his previous “degrade”-focused terminology.
But then there’s the concern of strategic credibility. And here, while the president deserves praise for recognizing that “extremist ideology has spread within some Muslim communities” and for reminding Americans to respect fellow Muslim citizens, these positives were the exceptions to the rule.
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Most problematic, the President failed to address the lack of strategic direction that defines US policy on ISIS. When, for example, the president stated, “we have no evidence that the killers were directed by a terrorist organization overseas…” he was attempting to bury the fact that ISIS has now attacked America. And as I noted in November 2014 and in March 2015, ISIS strategy has long claimed that anyone can join the organization by accepting its propaganda and taking up arms. The president knows this, but he won’t admit that his strategy has failed to weaken ISIS credibility and has thus allowed the threat to grow.
The president also offered a disingenuous pretense in stating that he would “continue to provide training and equipment to tens of thousands of Iraqi and Syrian forces fighting ISIL on the ground.” But as I’ve explained, President Obama has long been reluctant to support key potential anti-ISIS allies like the Sunni tribes of Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. Still, the strongest evidence for Obama’s ongoing credibility-deficit came with his familiar offering of a binary choice between his hesitant strategy and total war. American should support his approach, the president said, because it “won’t require us sending a new generation of Americans overseas to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil.”
The president knows this, but he won’t admit that his strategy has failed to weaken ISIS credibility and has thus allowed the threat to grow
This is logical fallacy 101. Even though the president knows that no serious conservatives are calling for 10 years of war, he hopes that by playing on Americans’ fears and deriding “tough talk,” he’ll distract from his own failures.
Extending from this distraction game, the second problem with the president’s speech was its stunning refusal to take responsibility. Watching the president, you might think he’d never stated ISIS was a “JV team” or “contained.” Instead, the president claimed he has always been on top of the threat: “Since the day I took this office, I have authorized U.S. forces to take out terrorists abroad precisely because I know how real the danger is.” Had President Obama admitted his mistakes and stated that he’d learned from them, he would have restored some leadership credibility. Regrettably, he put his ego first.
Yet the greatest weakness of this speech was its misdirected purpose. Because it was only when the president spoke of gun control that his true passion emerged. And even then, his gun control proposals were fundamentally unserious. Brushing aside the legal and practical deficiency of such a proposal (read Charles Cooke), President Obama offered the platitude that “Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun.” There is a patent constitutional absurdity in this call for arbitrary executive restrictions on individual gun ownership. Not done, however, President Obama then hurled another ball of petulant partisanship against Republicans, describing them as those “who reject any gun-safety measures.”
Regardless, President Obama’s connection between ISIS plotters in Raqqa and gun control in America is at best delusional and at worst disingenuous.
At best, President Obama’s speech was a disappointment. The American people want stronger leadership, both through mobilizing passion and strategic direction, from the commander-in-chief. Sadly, the president seems to believe that words alone will restore his credibility.